So 2011 was a lot of fun.
Trevor Powers’ music makes me feel a lot of things I just can’t put my finger on. When I first heard it, the walls of reverb and slow burning melodies seemed tailor-made to lull me to sleep. Like the best dream-pop records, though, it kept bringing me back, searching for the power in these seemingly nonchalant, mumbled lyrics and those chords that surge upwards, eternally hopeful. It’s more of a feeling than anything I can write down, though, the kind of satisfaction you get from waking up from a really good dream that you just can’t remember the details of. Dream music, that sounds about right.
If this is what jam bands do nowadays, I need to start growing my mustache out and cultivate a stash of patchouli, because this is the kind of 21st-century music that you air-guitar along to. I don’t know what front man James Petralli is mumbling on about half the time, but that’s hardly the point – when they’re infusing psychedelic rock with prog and jazz and a healthy dose of innovative looping techniques, you’ll be plenty focused on just trying to keep up.
A “bokeh” is literally the photographic image of a blur, or any out-of-focus area on an image. For much of Mind Bokeh, Stephen Wilkinson refuses to clarify things. It’s typical of Wilkinson’s career that he can never really seem to stay in one place, yet Mind Bokeh never suffers from a lack of focus. It’s loose and relaxed in an after party sort of way, content to drift along in a haze of summer sounds and washed out sonic photographs that coalesce wonderfully into closer “Saint Christopher.” It’s the track that most symbolizes the aesthetic of the record, continually diverging loops and cracked samples weaving back and forth, seemingly disparate, until Wilkinson ties it all together near the end. Yes, he really does know what he’s doing.
Oftentimes when artists feel commercial success is threatening their artistic credibility, they may record a follow-up that often has the simultaneous goal of “getting back to my roots” and “alienating all the posers who liked me because of that iPod commercial.” I’m not entirely convinced that this wasn’t Leslie Feist’s whole goal with Metals, an album that has a bleak, unwelcoming landscape as its cover and no candidates to conveniently slide in next to “1234” at the Starbucks rack. Yet by refusing to kowtow to the single-oriented modern market and soaking all of Metals in a morose sheen of understated production, Feist has turned the spotlight back on what always made her a great artist to begin with: her songwriting.
I may be one of the few people who hasn’t correlated Conor Oberst’s continued growth in the studio with his decline as a songwriter. Just because he prefers an array of electric guitars and an army of multi-tracked studio tricks at his back to an acoustic guitar has never lessened the impact of his words for me, and the hooks – “Shell Games” might be the best single he’s ever penned. “Ladder Song,” meanwhile, quickly dispelled any fear I might have had of Oberst losing his intimacy.
The Kills put on one of the most distinctive performances I’d seen all year at Coachella this past April. Stark black-and-white stage lighting, and then Jamie Hince strolls onstage strumming that wicked, chugging riff to “No Wow,” and then Alison Mosshart’s voice, practically dripping with sex, enters stage left. The drums kick in, that riff turns threatening, and Mosshart’s voice leaps out across yards of grass with shit-kicking authority. These two make a hell of a lot of noise, and there’s no subtlety here – “you can fuck like a broken sail,” Mosshart sings with an edge, and that’s all you really need to know about the Kills. It’s primal, red-blooded rock ‘n roll, and it makes you want to sleep with Mosshart except for the fact that now you’re afraid she’s going to rip something necessary off of you.
I’m a sucker for twee, and this checks all the boxes off nicely: summer love lyrics, boy-girl harmonies, hooks that don’t quit and don’t overextend their welcome, either. Cults is short and to the point – when I saw the band live, they closed by saying: “This is our last song. We don’t do that encore bullshit. Good night.” It’s debatable whether this occurred due to a genuine dislike of encores or a dearth of material, but regardless it won me over. Encores suck; two-minute pop songs rule.
The best word I can come up with to describe The Rip Tide is “stately,” which is odd because I’ve always thought as Beirut as sort of a spontaneous project. Yet “A Candle’s Fire” sets out The Rip Tide’s style quite well – horns and martial drums surrounding Zach Condon’s deliberate vocals, with a clear progression and narrative arc. The Rip Tide may be Beirut’s most structured record, but that’s all to its benefit. Giving himself only nine songs to work was a calculated move on Condon’s part, and it works because all nine are tight, focused and arguably the most relatable of any in his career. This is a record that doesn’t need a fancy backstory or foreign tones – just Condon and his ability to weave an interesting tale.
Ditching the monochromatic cover of Primary Colours for the hazy water landscape on the front of Skying was the best thing the Horrors ever did. I was never a huge fan of their Bauhaus image and My-Bloody-Valentine-meets-Ian-Curtis shtick, but Skying takes all that and adds in a healthy dose of watercolors. The guitar tone on this album is something Kevin Shields would be proud of, but it’s their focus on thick, drug-friendly grooves and a heavy dose of trippy atmospherics that make this a new shoegaze classic.
Music for the Soviet factory worker in all of us. Dan Boeckner has made some stellar music in Wolf Parade, but Sound Kapital is his most fully realized statement, and the fact that he does it not with his trademark guitar wizardry but with vintage keyboards makes it all the more surprising. The entire record reeks of an Eastern European industrial club scene and the heavy, analog atmosphere of the Communist bloc weighs down on every populist lyric and old school synth tone. It’s a rewarding turn for the punk-minded Boeckner and one that lessens the blow of Wolf Parade’s indefinite hiatus ever so slightly.
Making up a genre and having Michael Cera go on tour with you as a bassist is a surefire way to get people to dismiss your new band, yet I was shocked to find that Mister Heavenly wasn’t just another Nick Thorburn vanity project. Out of Love succeeds because it’s not just Thorburn (who will have released three albums in a year once Islands’ new record drops) and some schmoes. It’s Ryan Kattner’s (Man Man) hoarse howl contrasting perfectly with Thorburn’s nasal whine on back-and-forth exchanges like “I Am A Hologram.” It’s Joe Plummer’s (Modest Mouse, the Shins) rock-solid rhythm work charging out of the gate like a pissed off Spoon on “Bronx Sniper.” Thorburn’s surf riffs and Kattner’s barroom piano chords call to mind music of a different era, but it’s decidedly ambiguous: when Thorburn wails, “so, you think I could ever hurt you, how? / Now, I’m gonna hold you close” on “Harm You,” it’s more Ted Bundy than Brill Building happiness. But the best part about Out of Love is that we might have the makings of an actual band on our hands than a one-off Pitchfork article.
It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: Christopher Owens, a genuinely fucked up individual by all accounts, writes some truly terrific pop music. People who dismiss Father, Son, Holy Ghost as a mere pastiche are doing themselves a disservice – Owens is the best young pop classicist in the business right now. What really sets him apart from his peers, though, is his totally guileless enthusiasm. He’s the type of front man who can give out a little yelp as the guitar buzzes back in on “Honey Bunny” and make it sound totally authentic, totally right. Which, incidentally, is how the rest of the record sounds. Combine that sincerity with the kind of ambitious song structures Owens has flawlessly constructed here, and maybe those Brian Wilson comparisons aren’t so far off now.
Eisley’s third album paints in broad, brash strokes, leaving subtlety weeping somewhere in a Christian coffee house. If the album title didn’t tip you off, stormy first single “Smarter” certainly will. Look at these song titles, ranging from the vindictive to the obvious – “Watch It Die,” “Better Love,” “Ambulance,” “Sad.” So things are a bit dark for the DuPree family, but as it so often works out for artists in the doldrums, it’s we the audience who wins. Eminently accessible and ripe with a melodic confidence that can only come with experience, The Valley tackles real world angst with a hook-centric precision and a weariness that Eisley never could have pulled off on their cutesy earlier work.
Or, how I learned to stop worrying and listen to dubstep that didn’t predicate itself on the filthiest womps. I like that title – those mixed feelings in the hours after a rave, still buzzed and hopelessly content but also on edge after hours of partying, the mind skittering around nervously, and Old Raves End is just the kind of music to ease one after such a night. It’s after party music for those that don’t want the party to end, and in its minimal, bass-heavy tones and slithery electronic gurgling it showed me a new world of dubstep I had previously dismissed. I haven’t properly raved in a while, but Old Raves End still has a place in my heart, that consolation when I get to the end of my rope and just need something to immerse myself in. And unlike those old raves, which became increasingly more repetitive and fake, Swarms only continued to get better, every single time.
I think Manchester Orchestra made a mistake when they made “Simple Math” the first single. It was too big, too epic, and most importantly, too damn good to overcome. I still slot it behind “I Can Feel A Hot One” as their best, but making “Simple Math” the first taste of Simple Math could only cause the rest of the record to pale in comparison. Releasing “Virgin,” a song that, frankly, tried too hard, as the third single only made the disparity more glaring. Yet Simple Math is still the band’s most focused collection, tightening the screws on their fine tuned mastery of pop hooks and featuring a more fearless, adroit songwriter and vocalist in Andy Hull. He might occasionally get carried away with the group’s growing faculty in the recording studio, but it’s that kind of bold attitude that makes Manchester Orchestra one of the more exciting acts in recent years, not to mention one that would be a welcome boon to dusty rock radio.
It’s rare for a band to sound so fully formed on their debut as Givers do on In Light. Keyboards, flutes, saxophones, even ukuleles abound in an indie pop stew defined by the dueling vocals of Taylor Guarisco and Tiffany Lamson. It would be disingenuous to call this world music – Givers is firmly rooted in the pop tradition of contemporaries Vampire Weekend and Local Natives, with the saccharine boy-girl motif of Mates of State thrown in for good measure. But like those bands, there’s a liberal dose of world music sprinkled in; members of the band were active members in Louisiana’s Cajun and zydeco music communities, and listening to In Light is like playing a very entertaining game of Where’s Waldo, Genre Edition. There’s the afro-pop beat on “Meantime” and the island vibe of “Ceiling of Plankton” amidst many other creative pastiches, yet the band still maintain their own identity throughout it all, largely thanks to Lamson’s velvety croon and Guarisco’s more easily agitated yelp. Even if Givers fails to live up to the promise inherent here, I will be perfectly content with just listening to In Light over and over again.
The Color Spectrum is such a ridiculously outsized (and probably unnecessary) achievement, that it’s difficult to analyze it as an album or anything that cohesive, although the gimmick of matching up colors with styles should be applauded, even if some of them don’t always work out. I was never really partial to Black, and Red comes off as a Manchester Orchestra imitation EP, but when Casey Crescenzo really branches out it’s eye opening. The sequence from Yellow to Green to Blue and finally to Indigo, that rollercoaster through indie pop and alt country and folk and the wide open spaces of Blue and Indigo, is an actual aural adventure. I love how Violet sounds like old Dear Hunter except, inexplicably, ten times better, and how White effortlessly summarizes everything with a theatrical flourish. The biggest accomplishment, though, is the final result itself – for a project that seemed doomed to collapse under the weight of its own ambition, that The Color Spectrum is a viable album of the year candidate is nothing short of astonishing.
At a New Pornographers show last year I distinctly remember being taken aback my Dan Bejar. Dude just did not give a fuck. He read his lyrics from a torn notebook page, played with his back to the audience, and generally mumbled about like a drunkard. At one point he laid on his back facing the back of the stage while singing “If You Can’t See My Mirrors.” It’s always been that kind of attitude that’s attracted me to Bejar’s songs – often nonsensical, always interesting – and Kaputt is no different. “Just set the loop and go wild,” Bejar intones at the end of “Savage Night at the Opera,” and that’s what Kaputt is, really. The loop, of course, being a strangely sensuous, definitely deviant version of ‘80s pop and acid jazz with a healthy dose of Kenny G saxophone and a strong undertone of lonely, meaningless sex. The music, for all its flourishes, combines to create a strikingly meditative atmosphere, and that allows one to focus on the feelings Kaputt engenders upon repeated listens, feelings of marginalization and defeat that are as good a touchstone for Bejar and his faithful listeners in the 21st century as any. “New York City just wants to see you naked / and they will,” Bejar sings, and this is his message in a bottle, a warm and welcoming array of vintage sounds hiding a very bitter and desperate soul on the inside.
Best debut of the year.
At this point, everyone knows the story behind Antlers, who finally made it (indie) big in 2009 on the strength of a crushingly intimate record about an emotionally destructive relationship. It’s a narrative that has colored everything they’ve done since then, and nothing has been overshadowed by it more than Burst Apart. Peter Silberman stated in an interview, “you can put [Burst Apart] on and not feel like it had to be a severe emotional experience.” For many, this directly defeated everything that appealed to them about the Antlers. Those people missed out on one of the great records of 2011, a record that finally showcases the talents of the band the Antlers and not just the lyrical prowess (still quite strong, I might add) of Peter Silberman fronting some other guys playing instruments. Where it was Silberman’s wispy falsetto that carried all the emotional weight on Hospice, here it’s the group, exploring a variety of textures and celebrating singledom with major-key chords on opener “I Don’t Want Love.” Maybe Silberman needed to get all of that poison out of him on Hospice to make the best record of his career, because make no mistake – Burst Apart is that record, and a strong harbinger of what’s to come if the Antlers can keep evolving like this.
No Color is so obviously a reaction to the tepid response to Time To Die that it’s easy to dismiss this record as simply the Dodos remaking Visiter and hoping nobody notices. They got rid of that extraneous third member and the superstar producer and got back to the basics, namely Meric Long’s slithery folk and Logan Kroeber’s walloping drums. But this isn’t Visiter, Redux. The songwriting is noticeably tighter, the pop lessons they learned from Phil Ek having been comfortably merged with the pair’s inherently messy folk style resulting in the most fluid songwriting of the band’s career. When there’s a flourish, like Neko Case’s guest spot on album centerpiece “Don’t Try and Hide It,” it’s seamless and natural, not calling attention to itself but instead highlighting the muscular melody at the heart of the song. Whereas Visiter seemed more like a scattershot compilation, No Color works as a coherent album, one where it would be impossible to sever any one song from another without helplessly ruining the entire concept. It’s difficult for a band to extricate itself from a style as distinct and successful as the one they trademarked on Visiter, and the Dodos don’t even try – instead, they merely set about to perfect their craft.
“I’ve been ramblin’, I’m just driftin’….”
Bigger, better, longer . . . uncut.
Finally, the definitive proof that Jeff Tweedy has just been fucking with us for the past several years. There seemed to be a malaise on post-A Ghost is Born material, one where Nels Cline seemed awkwardly out of place and Tweedy preferred to record easy listening duets with Feist than write anything of substance. That’s thankfully not the case here. Cline feels more a part of the band than ever before, and it’s hard to imagine a song like “Art of Almost” being quite so good without the ragged noise freakout he slices in at the outro. This is a band that isn’t afraid to travel the stylistic map, something that has been largely absent since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and it’s part of what makes this a genuine Wilco album and not a dad-rock imitation that has been the band’s ball and chain the past few years. A trippy Beatles-esque ballad coexists nicely with a full-fledged rocker like “Dawned On Me,” which slides in right before the dusty, vaguely threatening folk of “Black Moon.” Wilco haven’t felt this alive in years – even an ostensible throwaway like the vaudevillian “Capitol City” has a heart and soul to it that’s been absent from a Wilco record in recent years. All this isn’t even mentioning a song that would have made this the best Wilco album in years if every other track had been utter tripe. “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” is the kind of song that most Americana bands will never write over the course of their entire careers – by my count, this is the fourth or fifth masterpiece Wilco have penned, and it might be the best when all is said and done. With just “One Sunday Morning,” Wilco would have had a firm place back in my heart. With The Whole Love, they’ve recaptured their spot at the top of the American rock heap.
I think I will look back at 2011 and its defining sound will be that instantly recognizable opening synth riff to “Midnight City.” The way it keeps declaring in bright neon lights that the ‘80s never left, they just percolated in the mind of one Anthony Gonzalez before he unleashed a whole shitstorm of nostalgia and good vibes on us. “Waiting in the car / waiting for the right time,” Gonzalez wails, and obviously that right time is when that sexy saxophone solo lets itself go, without mercy and without any sense of proper decorum. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has never heard of the word irony – this is Gonzalez’s love letter to the music of his youth, and its sincerity and colossal scope are something to be admired. Gonzalez isn’t interested in creating or following a scene, or catering his music to the tastemakers – he’s interested in appealing to your most basic emotions, and not just talking about it – shouting them from the tallest buildings, preferably with a choir of angels and a billion sonic rainbows. Like Dan Bejar this year, he uses the oft-disparaged palette of the ‘80s to do so. Unlike Bejar, who makes me feel like I’ve done too much cocaine in a Miami strip club, Gonzalez is all wide-eyed optimism and spotless nostalgia, the world seen through the eyes of the Breakfast Club. Could any other artist write a song like “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” and sound so damn earnest about it, like he honestly believes that the power of love and an army of sparkling synths will create “the biggest group of friends the world has ever seen / jumping and laughing forever?” That’s why he has a child saying it, of course – even Gonzalez knows that’s pure wishful thinking in 2011. But that’s why I love Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming so much – Gonzalez has made a record where that ideal is a possibility, if only for twenty-two cinematic, immersive tracks. Gonzalez might be a dreamer, but he’s made one out of all of us.